Thursday, May 3, 2012

Movie – To Sir, with Love (1967)

First things first: all together now – “To Sir,ir,ir with lo-o-o-o-ove”.  Okay, now that I’ve got that out of my system, I can start.  How do you write a review about someone who has taken people from crayons to perfume?  It isn’t easy, but I’ll try.  Okay, maybe it wasn’t completely out of my system.  (I’ll be serious now.)

I was home from college one weekend and flipped the TV on.  I heard the opening lines from the song To Sir, with Love.  It triggered a memory with me.  The song was played on the radio when I was very little.  I remember thinking from the lyrics it was about a child who gets cared for by an older person, maybe even adopted.  I decided to watch the movie.  It turned out to be quite a bit different from what I expected.  I also really enjoyed it. 

Nowadays there have been any number of inspirational teacher movies, but back then they hadn’t become a cliché.  I found myself really moved by the character of Mark Thackeray – aka “Sir” – in the movie.  The fact that he was played by Sidney Poitier had a big part in this.  I was not alone.  The movie proved to be so popular in the U.S. that the studio actually conducted research to find out why.  (They had left it on the shelf for a year expecting nothing much from it.)  They found out the reason that people went to see it and liked it was because of its star.  Critics love the film, too.  It has a 92% Fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

If ever there was an actor with screen presence it’s Sidney Poitier.  He commands whatever scene he is in.  The same year this film came out he would also co-star in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, where he held his own with both Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn; and he also co-starred in Best Picture winner In the Heat of the Night where he was more than a match for Rod Steiger’s redneck sheriff.  All in all, Poitier had a hell of a year in 1967.

The film To Sir, with Love opens with Mark Thackeray (Poitier) searching for an engineering job, which is his field of expertise.  He’s not having any success.  He finally accepts a teaching position at a high school in the East End of London.  It’s a very tough neighborhood and the students there are the worst.  The other teachers warn him that he’s got the worst of the worst.  The reason a position was open is that no one wanted to teach these particular seniors.

When Thackeray gets to the classroom it is chaos.  Students are listening to music, dancing, talking, etc.  He finally gets some order in the class, but it doesn’t last long.  He spends a few weeks attempting to teach them from the text before he admits that he is getting nowhere.  He decides to shake things up.

The next day he comes in, takes all the books away from the students, and has a much more commanding demeanor.  He tells them that the reality of their lives is that they are not going to be using what he was trying to teach them and instead he will teach them what they need to know to survive in the real world, which they will soon be entering.  The students are stunned.

The first thing Thackeray teaches them is how to be adults.  This starts with addressing each other respectfully, and it includes addressing him as “Sir”.  He also tells them he expects them to wash themselves before coming to school and to wear clean clothes.  He finally starts to connect with some of the students and this inspires him to go further.  He takes them to a museum; he teaches them how to make some simple meals.  As his methods start to work he also starts to inspire the other teachers, who have been not much better than the students in some ways.

Of course, things don’t all go smoothly.  There is one student in particular who doesn’t respond.  Another (Judy Geeson) responds all too well and develops a crush on Sir.  Thackeray has to deal with both without hurting either student (much).  While all of this is going on, Thackeray has continued to apply for engineering positions.  What happens when he finally gets offered the job he has been looking for?

For anyone thinking that this sounds like a typical Hollywood story, it’s not.  The movie is based on E.R. Braithwaite’s semi-autobiographical 1959 novel of the same name.  James Clavell adapted it for the screen and directed the movie.  Clavell was known at the time for screenplays such as 1963’s The Great Escape.  In later years he would become better known as a novelist for such books as Shogun and Taipan.

No review of this film would be complete without mentioning the best-selling, number one hit song To Sir, with Love.  It is sung by Lulu, who has a role in the film as one of the students.  In fact, parts of the song are heard multiple times in the film and in one of them Lulu is singing on screen.  Years later U2 would do an affectionate cover version of it during their concerts.  Most recently, the Glee students sang it to their teacher in the first season finale.  I have watched this film four or five times since originally discovering it and damned if the final scene with that song hasn’t gotten me every time.  I’ve embedded the song at the bottom of this post.  It has stills from the film, but there is no context to them, so they should not spoil anything for those who have not seen the movie.

The film will probably come across a little dated for the sixties music and clothing.  That’s not that big a deal, though, at least for me.  Because it’s the 1960’s it doesn’t try to pretend that racial issues of a black man teaching mostly white students do not exist.  This is a good thing.  Ignoring it would have made it unrealistic.  It doesn’t make it the central point of the movie, either.  This is also a good thing.  It’s first and foremost about a teacher connecting with his students.

By the way, there was a 1996 made for TV movie that brought back Poitier as the character of Mark Thackeray.  It was directed by Peter Bogdonovich.  It tried to recapture the magic of the first film and it just didn’t do it.  It’s not horrible, but it’s a big step down from the original.

Even if you’ve seen your share of inspirational teacher movies, you really owe it to yourself to see To Sir, with Love.  Sidney Poitier really captures a man trying to balance doing the right thing, and doing what’s best for him.  He comes to care for his students and he wants what’s best for them, too.  He tries his utmost to ensure that he does what he can for them.  The result is a portrait of a truly great human being.  To go back to quoting the song, Poitier's performance lets you give your heart to Sir, with love.  I give this film my highest recommendation.

Chip’s Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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  1. Never seen this, Chip. I saw In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, though--does that count? I know the song, but not the movie. I think Sidney Poitier should be respected for breaking cultural stereotypes by the his film performances, but I was never a big fan of his acting.

  2. @KimWilson - Have you seen his Oscar-winning performance in Lilies of the Field?

    1. Yes, I have. You are a new follower of mine, so your probably don't know I used to be a nun--Lilies of the Field was required viewing!

    2. You are correct; I did not know that you used to be a nun. I'm resisting all kinds of urges to make bad jokes about other nun-related films. :-)

  3. Nice write up. I haven't seen this film, but Sidney Poitier definitely has massive screen presence, as you say. For some reason, I never realized that this, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner were the same year. HOLY COW!!

    I'm very ambivalent about teacher movies, undoubtedly because I'm a teacher, and it's something I am immensely passionate about. There are one or two teacher movies I really love, but most of them I actively dislike. But this one has Poitier, so I think I would be inclined to like it.

    1. Out of curiosity, what are the one or two teacher movies that you love? I might have seen them and be able to offer comparisons to this one.

    2. I really enjoy "Stand and Deliver" (but who doesn't), and I love love love love "Election." Possibly in my favorite movies of all time list. But then again, I am a diehard Alexander Payne fangirl.

    3. I liked both films quite a bit. I wish Stand and Deliver had been released in widescreen on DVD. I still feel that Witherspoon didn't so much win the Oscar for Walk the Line, but a delayed Oscar for Election. Broderick's teacher isn't exactly one that should be emulated, though. It does make an interesting double feature with Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

      In regards to comparisons, To Sir, with Love is much closer to Stand and Deliver, except that instead of trying to turn the students into math whizzes he is just trying to teach them life skills they will need once they leave high school.

  4. J'adore Sidney Portier. Have you ever seen A Patch of Blue?

  5. @msmariah - No, I haven't. I take it you would recommend it?